When New Ulm, Minnesota’s, August Schell Brewing Company set out to develop its Schell’s Stag Series #9, it went back to its roots. Well, actually it went deeper than its roots to the caves that lie beneath them.
Schell’s Stag Series #9 is a complex beer. It’s a dark lager aged in whiskey barrels, which creates a true blending of flavors–the barrels give vanilla and toffee notes, combined with a warm and toasty feel that never overtakes the lager profile. Simply put, there’s a lot going on in this beer. But the process behind it is equally interesting: to make the barrel-aged beer, the brewers at Schell’s conditioned it for three months in their original 19th century manmade caves.
The 155-year old brewery built the caves in the 1860s–years before electrical refrigeration was commonplace–to age and cool its beer. Today, Schell’s is in the unique position of being able to tie back to its history and explore old-world techniques in the modern era.
The caves have undergone only minimal changes over the years. Cork insulation that used to line the stucco interior was removed, and a ventilation duct and steam pipes were added, but otherwise, the underground labyrinths remain a trip back in time. In order for Stag Series #9 to make that trip, however, Schell’s had to get the beer into the caves, which was easier said than done.
Empty Jack Daniels whiskey barrels were first carried down a narrow corridor by hand. Once in place, the beer was pumped into them from a cellar tank via hose and racking arm. Later, the same process was used to get the beer out.
Stag Series #9 is largely about the barrels. Dave Berg created the recipe, choosing a big, dark lager to pair with the whiskey flavors, which is fitting, says Schell’s Brewmaster Jace Marti, because in years gone by the caves were also used to condition dark lagers similar to modern American ambers. The barrels defined the profile for Stag Series #9, but the natural intangibles of cave conditioning also impacted the final product. Variation in temperature between the two caves essentially created two different batches and Schell’s chose to blend them together before packaging.
Marti, who represents the sixth generation of his family to brew beer for Schell’s, estimates that the last time the caves were used for conditioning beer was prior to the brewery’s first refrigeration system, an ammonia pump they installed in 1898. As Schell’s grew, some caves were closed and filled in and those that remained became storage space.
“When I was little, one of the first jobs my dad [Schell’s President Ted Marti] had me do was start cleaning up the caves,” Jace recalls. “It was awful.”
Marti said the cork insulation that used to line the walls was decaying, making it a dark, damp, and dirty task.
“To this day, it was still one of the worst jobs I’ve ever done. The second time around, it was finishing the job and getting them ready to store barrels.”
With adulthood on his side and the reward of a barrel-aged dark lager on the way, the task suddenly felt more rewarding.
While there were no remarkable discoveries made during the cleanup process, it served as an opportunity to confirm some oral history. The caves originally went deeper, underneath what is today the bottle house.
“We tried drilling a hole through a [cave] wall they put up in 1950,” Jace explains, which is when the bottle house was built. Back then, he says, they filled some caves with sand and walled them off to protect the building’s structure. “After 3 feet of bricks we hit sand, which was a little disappointing, but confirmed the rumor.”
Though 150 years of brewery growth has led to many of the original caves being closed, two sections remain, both about 7-8 feet in height, and going 20-30 feet into the side of a hill.
Ultimately, the challenge was the space itself, not the change in technology. The caves are difficult to access but it won’t deter Schell’s from continuing to experiment with them. They are planning an annual release, perhaps akin to their Snowstorm and fresh hop beers, which will feature a recurring name with a new recipe each year.
While Jace says they’re still working out the details for the series, whatever it ends up being will undoubtedly reflect the brewery’s deep history of on the outskirts of New Ulm.
Schell’s Stag Series #9:
Cave-aged Barrel-aged Lager
7.7% ABV, 40 IBU
Hops: Nugget (bittering and aroma)
Malt: Optic, Bonlander, 2-row, Red X, Victory, Pale Chocolate, Special Roast
Sugars: Turbinado and Dark Candi Syrup
Yeast: Czech Lager